Hope Idiotic | Part X
Hope Idiotic is a serialized novel. Catch each new part every week on Monday and Thursday.
FOLLOWING THE FIRST MONTH AT THE SALES COMPANY WITH A MONETARY TARGET OF $750 — THE EQUIVALENT OF ONE JOB POSTING — Lou never again hit his goals. As a result, he was never paid more than the $1,430 a month base salary. He would not make sixty grand that year.
And it wasn’t just because he hated his job with every fiber of his being and sucked horribly at it. His team was designated to call on south Texas. The desk jockeys made daily calls to towns like Corpus Christi, Victoria and Galveston. His leads were mostly shipping companies. It was September 2008, and the economy was weak. Lou knew it. He knew it the day he arrived in Chicago over a year ago. And it seemed that it was only getting weaker. It was further evidenced by most of the leads he spoke to telling him, “We’re just not hiring right now. In fact, we’re laying people off.” But like a date rapist deaf to the word “no,” the desk jockeys were encouraged to push forward.
“If they tell you they’re not hiring at the moment, you respond that we’re helping them plan for the future,” the douchey twenty-two-year-old sales trainer said to Lou’s class of trainees. “By having job postings up, they are able to gather names and résumés to put on file so that when the need to fill a position opens up, they already have a large stack of qualified candidates to choose from. Thus, the hiring process is shorter, readying the business to function efficiently!”
ProCore was peddling lies. Before he moved and was looking for jobs, he created an account with them. Not once did he receive any job alerts for anything even remotely resembling the interests he put into the system—although he did get notifications to become an Avon Lady. With no businesses hiring and many job postings advertising unavailable positions, Lou was struggling to sell an antiquated product.
And on September 13, Hurricane Ike smashed into Galveston and other small towns along the Gulf of Mexico. Ike killed nearly two hundred people and caused approximately $29.5 billion in damage. Worst of all, the devastation forced most of the businesses on Lou’s lead list to close.
“Brian wants us to leave messages of condolence on the companies’ answering machines,” Lou told Michelle at home a few days after Ike hit.
“Who is Brian again?”
“What are you supposed to say?”
“’This is Lou Bergman from ProCore. I hope you and your loved ones are safe. All of us are thinking of you and wishing you the best for a speedy recovery. When you get back on your feet, please give me a call. Let’s rebuild your business together.’”
“That sounds ridiculous.”
“Completely. The stupidest thing about it is that these people may or may not come back to work, possibly after having their home washed away or losing a family member, to a soggy answering machine message from some assholes trying to sell online job postings—but even worse is that we were supposed to make the clients think that we were local. Like, I’m supposed to read the local papers online for each city I was calling so I could have a point of conversation, you know? So let me ask you this, you think they’re wondering why we’re not underwater along with them? Of course they are. It’s a fucking scam. These people are crooks.”
“So you’re not going to hit your number needed for the commission again, are you?”
“I really doubt it.”
Two days later, Lehman Brothers Holdings collapsed, causing a massive wave of panic throughout the financial world. The Great Recession had begun. That day, with no companies to call on, Lou’s entire team was glued to streaming videos and news stories about the collapse. Lou played online Tetris.
He wasn’t surprised or fascinated because he knew something like this was coming. The hiring freezes, the layoffs, the crumpling real estate market—it’s why he removed his house listing a year ago when, after two months on the market, no one looked at it once. And for the first time since moving to Chicago, Lou didn’t feel so alone. Finally, everyone else was panicking. Knowing that relaxed him more than he’d been in a long time.
By early December, ProCore’s downtown offices were looking more and more vacant—like Detroit. Each Monday morning had one less desk occupied as desk jockeys were being laid off. Team managers were being let go, too. Rumors began to circulate about a massive layoff. The panic was enormous. Lou pulled Brian aside one Thursday morning.
“Look, I’m just tired of people talking about it. Is a companywide layoff coming?”
“Not that I know anything about,” Brian said.
“Would you tell me, or the rest of the team, if something were going down? If there were reason for concern? You know, so we can begin looking for new jobs—not that anyone is hiring, as we well know.”
“I would tell you guys. You have nothing to worry about.”
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “This recession is really real.”
Lou and Michelle met for a drink in the Loop after work that day. Her office was experiencing a similar panic, but with far greater implications. Equity partners were actually being fired, not just at the Chicago office, but also in L.A. and Boston.
“If they’re firing equity partners, they won’t think twice about firing me,” Michelle said.
“No one from your practice group has been let go, right? With all of the firings and cuts, your department will probably see a spike in business. People are going to want to sue. You’re needed right now. It’s all about labor and employment. Besides, you’re a woman. They won’t fire a woman. That would be bad business. Diversity requirements and all that.”
Riding home on the bus, they encountered a traffic jam at the corner of Lake Street and Michigan Avenue. There were ambulances, fire trucks and cop cars with their lights flashing. A large group of people had gathered around the plaza of a residential high-rise. Everyone on the bus looked up from their books, newspapers and magazines and peered through the windows at the scene.
“It’s probably a bomb threat,” Michelle said.
“No way,” said Lou. “If it were a bomb threat, the entire block would be quarantined. Someone jumped. This is a suicide. I bet there’s a puddle of blood and guts and bones in that plaza.”
“You’re disgusting,” she told him, trying to keep her laughter to a reserved level.
The next morning, Lou was shaving in the bathroom when he heard Michelle shriek while she read the morning’s news online. He ran out. “What is it?”
“You were right. It was a suicide. It was Sam Tallisker.”
“Should I know who that is?”
“He was an attorney at my firm. He worked two floors above me.”
“And now he’s working forty floors below you.”
“That’s not funny, Lou. Jesus Christ, I can’t believe this. They let him go last week, which I hadn’t heard. He’d been with the firm for like twenty years. I can’t believe this.”
She stood up from the desk and threw herself into Lou’s arms. She cried. Lou held her and stroked her hair and kissed her forehead. She looked at him. Her eyes were red, tears streaked her face. It was an unusual sight because Michelle so rarely cried. Not during movies, not when she and Lou had fights, not when she read his love letters that she claimed made her “heart melt.” He wiped the salty streams from her cheeks.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “This recession is really real.”
Nothing had really gotten to her until this suicide. Not living with her unemployed and under-employed boyfriend over the past year watching the economy be ruined. It wasn’t the reports he gave her of hiring managers telling him they were on a hiring freeze or even hearing from a placement-agency headhunter that there just weren’t any jobs out there. It wasn’t his sleepless nights or the pointless fights she and Lou got into about his struggle to find a good job that made her see the recession was real. It was another attorney—someone she occasionally shared an elevator ride with—killing himself. A man who had a strong career under his belt who probably had plenty of money saved up and an absurd severance package equal to the hundreds of thousands he’d been earning for decades. A man who was in a comfortable position to sit back, enjoy the time off and plan a new strategy for when the market improved; maybe even go back to his old firm. Maybe go live on an island and snorkel his life away. Lou was struggling every day to pay for a pack of gum, and he was expected to rise above all the odds in a system working against him.
He wondered why she never cried for him, but tears were appropriate for a barrister who threw himself out of a window. And then he thought that maybe he would kill himself but quickly dismissed that idea because then he’d miss out on the little bit of sympathy she started to have for him.
“Yes, Michelle. The recession is really real.”
FRIDAY THAT WEEK, A COMPANYWIDE EMAIL WENT OUT AT PROCORE letting its employees know that a mandatory meeting would be held at four o’clock that afternoon. The entire floor of the office fell silent after it came through. A few moments later, the collective anxiety filled the floor. People began congregating and talking. Lou concentrated on his Tetris game.
“This is it. We’re all fired,” one of the desk jockeys said. “I bet they’re closing the office. Why would they do this before Christmas? I’m going to have to move back in with my parents.”
Because there were so many employees, several gatherings took place. Lou and Leslie’s team were stuffed into one of the conference rooms with three other teams. Jen Grady, a sweet but pushy devout Christian from the southwest region team was praying with her hands clasped and her head down.
“Ask Him if He’s hiring,” Lou said to her.
One of the HR managers walked into the conference room. She was with a middle-aged man wearing a sharp suit. She introduced him, but Lou missed his name. All he caught was that this guy was the CFO of the company. The conference room grew quiet.
“As you know, we’ve seen a sharp decrease in sales this last quarter,” the CFO said. “This is not because of the fault of any employee of this organization, but rather a result of a variety of compounding effects from the recent economic troubles. Having said that, we are forced to cut our staff significantly. Effective immediately, you are no longer employed with ProCore.”
Jen shrieked and began wailing. Others shifted uncomfortably where they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their unemployed brethren. There were murmurs and deep sighs. Lou laughed. “Of course,” he said to Leslie.
“All of your logins and passwords have been removed, so you will not be able to access any files you had on your computers,” the CFO said.
“What?” Jen cried out. “But I have photos on my computer!”
“Not any more you don’t,” the CFO said. “You should return to your desks to gather your belongings. Your manager will be there with a box for your things and a packet with your termination papers. They explain everything and include documents allowing you to sign up for COBRA. You should sign the termination agreement and fax it into the HR department as soon as you can so you can receive your final paycheck.”
“Fax it?” Lou asked. “I don’t have a fax machine at home. Can I just walk it in to the office on Monday?”
“We don’t want you to have to take any more time out of your day than you need to,” said the CFO.
“Hey, man. I’m unemployed. I have nothing but time.”
There were some snickers from the others. The HR manager looked away. The CFO stared Lou down. “Find a fax machine. If there are no other questions…”
“I have one more,” Lou said.
“You’re not doing this just so we have to use the site to look for work, you know, to increase traffic, boost your numbers?” More snickers from the others.
“No. This decision was strictly based on current economic viability. However, I encourage you to use the job-finding services that ProCore offers.”
“Oh, no thank you. I’ve already got my résumé on ResumeWorks.com.”
The others erupted in laughter. The CEO and the HR manager left. An empty cardboard box was waiting for Lou and Leslie on their desk chairs. Brian was standing nearby.
“I’m sorry,” he said to Lou.
“You lied to me.”
“They told us last week.”
“Was it a seniority thing?”
“Mostly, yeah. I couldn’t tell you. You understand that.”
“Not really. A heads-up would have been helpful. You know, in the interest of being professional at the core.”
At the apartment, Lou sat in the desk chair with his feet on the windowsill looking at the skyline. It was a cold, gray day and the view was a little hazy through the low clouds. The smoke and steam from the other buildings below his window rose out of their stacks and wiggled above their roofs. The cars zipped by on Lake Shore Drive, into and out of downtown. Outside, the city looked alive in the frozen air. Inside, the ice floating in his glass of scotch cracked as it slowly melted. He sat like that, sipping at his drink focused on the billowing smoke until Michelle burst through the door.
“Oh, sweetheart!” she said. “I am so, so sorry.” He had called her while waiting for the bus back home. She dropped her purse and her coat on the floor and ran to him. She threw her arms around him and kissed his lips, his cheeks and his forehead. She put herself in his lap. “They didn’t give you any other real reason as to why?”
“The economy. I told you things were crumbling. I’ve been saying that for more than a year.”
“I know you have, sweetheart. I know. All right, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to move your flight back home for Christmas so you’re with me. Since you don’t have to work now, you can get out there sooner. Because what you need right now is to be around people who love you. You need Chuck and Neal.”
Michelle called the airline and with honest and charming sadness she told the operator about Lou’s layoff situation. It was Christmastime so the operator was sympathetic and changed Lou’s flight without cost.
THAT MONDAY, LOU DROVE TO BRUSHWOOD TO VISIT WITH HIS GRANDPARENTS and see how Pop was feeling. He also needed to use Pop’s fax machine to send in his termination agreement.
Grams made lunch. Grilled cheese sandwiches on rye bread with tomato slices and tomato soup. “Well, I’ll tell ya.” Pop said. He often began conversations this way. It was like he had been thinking of the words long before speaking them. As a result, everything he said was a well-thought-out and deductive idea. Thinking before speaking was one of the few traits Lou didn’t inherit from his grandfather. “It’s not easy out there right now. I read the other day that the National Bureau of Economic Research says we’ve been in a recession for a year already.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you people,” Lou said. “It’s not that I haven’t been trying to find work.”
“Of course not, honey,” Grams said as she ladled soup into his bowl.
“And the only reason I took this job was because I had to. I needed something.”
“Maybe you should consider a different career,” Pop said.
“What do you mean?” Lou asked.
“Find something with growth potential and stability. Maybe you go into the sheet metal business with your father’s company.”
A decade ago, Benjamin purchased a century-old sheet metal factory located a few towns over from Brushwood where the blue-collars lived. Benjamin knew nothing of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning business, but the land was valuable and the company was profitable. It was purely a real estate venture.
“I don’t want to work in sheet metal. What would I do?”
“I’m not saying you need to be a union worker, but maybe you can learn the business and become a partner eventually. Working for family is always best.”
“Why can’t the family own a newspaper? Why can’t I just make a career doing what I want to do and what I’m good at?
“Because you have to make money and be secure. And sometimes, the things we want to do don’t allow us to always be secure.”
“You didn’t want to go into real estate,” Grams said to Pop.
“That’s true. I didn’t want to follow my father’s footsteps into the family business.”
“What did you want to do?”
“I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I’ve always been fascinated by the mind and the human condition and our environment and how it all affects us.”
“Do you wish you had gone to school and become a shrink?”
“No. I made the choice. And it was the right one. If I’d gone to school, it would have meant delaying starting a family with your grandmother. It would have taken time to build my practice before I could earn a decent living wage. I was home from the war and getting married and needed to earn a living. It just wasn’t feasible.”
“But once your practice was built, you’d be fine. And wouldn’t your dad have helped you out along the way like mine has done for me?”
“I’m sure he would have. But I didn’t want to put that burden on him.”
“And you don’t regret not following your dream of being a psychiatrist?”
“Eh. It all worked out.”
“I can’t do that, Pop. I can’t just turn my back on what I’ve always wanted and change my mind just like that. ProCore was just a job, but writing is—was—my career. That’s what I want to do.”
“Then you have to find a way to do it where you can rely on steady employment.”
“Well, right now, no one has steady employment.”
“We always need teachers. You could be a teacher. Write your books during the summer.”
“Didn’t you talk Uncle Jack out of being a teacher?”
“I wouldn’t say I talked him out of it. He was having trouble finding a job, and I suggested he consider the insurance industry. It’s steady and provides a good living.”
“You’re like the muscle of the Career Mafia.”
Pop laughed and took a sip of his soup. “Oh, God. This tastes terrible. I’m sorry, Adina. Nothing is tasting good to me.”
“Try the sandwich, maybe you’ll like that,” she said.
“It doesn’t even look appetizing.”
“What’s the matter?” Lou said.
“This medicine they’re giving me for the cancer makes everything taste awful. Everything has a metallic taste.”
“Why don’t you get some pot? That will make you hungry enough to choke anything down.”
“I have some pills with THC in them. They cost one hundred dollars each. And they don’t help.”
“So get some real pot. I bet your grandson Aaron can hook you up—and wait a second, you didn’t want to be a burden to your dad by asking for his help. Am I a burden?”
“Of course not, Sweetie,” Grams quickly answered.
THAT NIGHT, MICHELLE WANTED TO GET THEIR CHRISTMAS TREE. The year before, they walked to the empty lot next to the elementary school in their neighborhood to buy the tree and carried it the few blocks home. Now it was a tradition.
“It’s supposed to snow tonight. Just like last year. Can we get it tonight? It’ll be romantic.”
Lou loved Christmas. He loved the songs and the lights and presents and the parties and the movies. It’s the season of giving. But Lou was still broke. And unemployed—again. How could he give anybody anything?
He knew Michelle wouldn’t be okay if he suggested they not exchange gifts. And she sure wouldn’t be okay if he made her something. Like if he were to write her a story or something like that. Plus, he would have to buy gifts for her parents, too.
Fuck, he thought.
He couldn’t provide her with anything. Not a Christmas, not a birthday and not an anniversary.
At the apartment with the tree, she tuned the stereo in the apartment to the adult-contemporary radio station, which had been playing Christmas music since the day after Halloween. She nursed a glass of wine as she sang along to the radio. Lou drank two glasses of scotch before he finished stringing the lights.
“You need to make your gift list and send it to my parents,” she said.
“They don’t need to get me anything.”
“Well, they’re going to, so send it to them. And I need to see it, too. And you and I need to figure out who gets them what. Did you see their lists? Dad sent them this morning. And what about your mom? Did you figure out when we’re doing Christmas with her? I don’t want to do it too close to before we leave for Vegas. And preferably not on a Sunday night because you know I need Sunday nights to prepare for the workweek. We only have two more weekends before we leave.”
“Can we do it on a weeknight when you’re not working too late.”
“I always work late, you know that.”
“So then maybe duck out early one night.”
“Lou. This is my busy season.”
“Why? You’re not in retail.”
“Some of the clients I work with are.”
“That’s not the same thing.”
“I’m just too busy to have Christmas with your mother on a weeknight. I have to work so I can pay for our trips, okay? Do you even know what you’re bringing to Cabo?”
That was another thing. Michelle was turning thirty and she wanted to celebrate it and their second anniversary together in her favorite place on earth: Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Not only could he not afford Christmas, he was the paid guest of Michelle’s on a trip for her big birthday. That was an expense a boyfriend should cover. Lou should have been able to buy her plane ticket, at least split the hotel cost and not have to worry about emptying out his tiny bank account when the check came from her birthday dinner. And how big a night would their anniversary be on New Year’s Eve? He couldn’t provide her with anything. Not a Christmas, not a birthday and not an anniversary.
He fixed himself a third drink. “I’ll talk to my mom and see what day works. If I take us out to dinner on Saturday, would you be okay to do Christmas with her Saturday afternoon? Like a Christmas brunch here?”
“Sure. That’s fair. We can get cheeses and meats and I can open those new champagne bottles I got from my wine club.”
“That’d be perfect. Thank you.”
“Have you looked at any of the links I sent you for possible birthday dinners for me in Cabo?”
“No. I haven’t.”
“I feel like you’re not excited about this trip.”
“You don’t act like it.”
Lou was irritated because the trip was still three weeks out. He had just been laid off and although he had no money, he had to bribe her with dinner so she’d agree to have Christmas with his mother. Meanwhile, he was borrowing money from Benjamin to pay his half of the rent and buying plane tickets to Las Vegas to spend Christmas with her parents. He had other things on his mind that took precedence over her birthday dinner twenty-one days away. She would veto anything he picked anyway. She always did.
“I love traveling,” she said. “It’s my passion. You know that. And I love planning trips. And this is an important trip. It’s my thirtieth birthday and our second anniversary. I get really excited about these things, and I need you to get excited, too. I need to know you care about the things I care about so I know you care about me.”
“Jesus Christ, Michelle. You get excited like a puppy piddling on the floor months before every vacation. That’s you. That’s how you do things. I do things differently. I get excited as we get closer to the actual vacation. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. It means I have a ton of other shit to do before I pick a restaurant for you that you’ll disagree with anyway. I have to decide what to buy your parents for Christmas first. One expense at a time, please.”
Michelle glared at him for a moment. “You just ruined tree-decorating night. Congratulations.”
They finished hanging the ornaments without speaking to each other. The radio still played holy, jolly Christmas tunes. Lou did everything he could to keep from laughing at Michelle. She was so angry. He was so drunk.
Tree-decorating night, he thought. Who the fuck calls it that?